The first blog post I wrote for Psychology Today was about dopamine, and since then our smartphones have become even more capable of triggering a "dopamine loop."
It's all about dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that is found all through our body. In our brains dopamine is involved in a lot of our behavior, including thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention, motivation, seeking and reward.
Dopamine causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search. Researchers used to think that dopamine was the “pleasure” chemical. But Kent Berridge's work at the University of Michigan distinguishes between dopamine, the “wanting” system, and the opioid system as the “liking” system. The wanting system propels us to action and the liking system makes us feel satisfied, so we pause our seeking. The wanting system is stronger than the liking system. We seek more than we are satisfied.
Dopamine induces a loop -- it starts us seeking, then we get rewarded for the seeking which makes us seek more. Which is what I think happens when we respond to texts, or emails. The result is that we can't stop looking at email, texting, or checking our cell phones to see if we have a message or a new text.
The theory of classical conditioning in psychology tells us that we can become conditioned to respond to auditory or visual cues that a reward has, or is going to, arrive. Our smartphones beep and flash and show little icons when we have messages or texts, all adding to the addictive effect. Between classical conditioning and dopamine it can feel like you are addicted!
What do you think? Do you have a hard time not checking your phone when you hear that special tone?
Here's an animated video I just released on the topic.